Clinton Perfects the Art Of Go-Alone Governing

Feeling stymied by GOP on the Hill, president pushes agenda through executive orders, vetoes, and publicity.

It's becoming a pattern: When Congress doesn't do what President Clinton wants - and this year, that is most of the time - he does as much of it himself as he can.

By issuing executive orders and directives, invoking his right to veto, and staging nearly an event a day, the president is trying to carry his agenda forward, even when Republican lawmakers won't.

It's a typical tactic of presidents who face an opposition party in Congress. But as Mr. Clinton strives to leave his mark on the office, it's an art he's had to perfect.

Take this week as an example. Congress ignores his education plan to fund school construction and new teachers? Fine. The president vetoes the GOP's education version. Congress has not passed his juvenile-justice bill? OK, the president awards a series of small grants to help churches fight gangs in 16 American cities.

Acting alone, either by executive order or some other means, "has clearly become a central component of Clinton's leadership strategy," says Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University in California.

Many of the president's independent actions don't have nearly the impact of his patients' rights directive, which last winter extended patients' rights to nearly one-third of Americans. Or the effect of, say, his controversial May executive order to prohibit the federal government from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

But taken collectively, they "add up to an agenda," says Professor Moe, who is co-authoring a book on the power of unilateral measures taken by presidents.

Congress as a motivator

Part of this approach to governing is simply the Clintonian way. But a major motivator is the Republican Congress. In this midterm election year, when Republicans and Democrats are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from each other, Clinton has lost on tobacco, education, and child care, to name just a few of the items on his long to-do list.

"Any time you see the hourglass draining with respect to bipartisan cooperation on legislation in Congress, then it's time to start looking at other ways of skinning a cat," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

Of course, the president is often restricted in what he can do to get around Congress, which controls the purse strings for his programs.

A good example is education. One presidential response to that this week was to call for a summit in the fall on school safety - hardly a substitute for bricks, mortar, and more bodies in the classroom.

Mr. McCurry still holds out hope that this Congress will, as in election year 1996, end its session in a flurry of bipartisanship. "Our view is they're not going to want to see Clinton get all the credit for taking action in moving some of these things forward. They're very likely going to want to pass some things that they can take back to their constituents."

And on the federal budget, working its way through Congress now, the White House hopes that its many threatened vetoes will eventually bring the GOP to capitulation. Republicans, the reasoning goes, won't want to be blamed for a government shutdown this fall like they were in late 1995.

The White House would especially like to see the spirit of cooperation move lawmakers on the patients' bill of rights, which would reform managed care. McCurry says there is room for maneuvering on the president's most contentious criteria - the right of individuals to sue health-maintenance organizations when the HMOs make mistakes.

Those who came before

Clinton is certainly not the only president to govern by executive fiat. President Truman desegregated the military through executive order. President Johnson introduced affirmative action the same way. And when it comes to rejecting legislation from Congress, "President Ford vetoed up the gazoo," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But it's hard to find any president who matches Clinton's modus operandi of event-a-day governing. This week it was a school summit announcement on Monday, nursing-home crackdown on Tuesday, grants to fight youth crime on Wednesday, and relief for America's parched farmers on Thursday.

Critics, though, say it's precisely this all-over-the-map approach that contributes to the president's losses. "My advice would be focus, focus, focus," says George Edwards, director of the center for presidential studies at Texas A&M in College Station. "Any piece of legislation takes a long time to incubate. You have to keep doing it and not do anything else."

But the White House doesn't see it this way. "Why do you think Bill Clinton's got these [favorable] poll numbers?" asks McCurry. Relief for farmers is front-page news in the parched upper plains. Americans, says McCurry, see a president doing his job - despite his legal and political challenges in Washington.

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